A Wyoming state legislator accused LGBTQ advocacy group Wyoming Equality of “exploiting children” in order to “further an agenda” in the wake of two student-related incidents involving homophobia over the past several months — a narrative Wyoming Equality disputes.
In a Facebook comment on an article posted on the page of a Cheyenne radio station on Sunday, Rep. Scott Clem, R-Gillette, called the group’s efforts to have the principal of a Cheyenne junior high school investigated “a ploy to take the heat off of Wyoming Equality for using children to advance their agenda,” adding that the group repeatedly “uses underage children and throws them to the media wolves to make a political statement.”
Wyoming Equality had called for the investigation after posters were found at McCormick Junior High containing phrases such as “it’s great to be straight it’s not OK to be gay” and “black lives only matter because if it weren’t for them who would pick our cotton.”
Clem then proceeded to call out the organization’s director and fellow state lawmaker Rep. Sara Burlingame, D-Cheyenne, saying she did not offer the principal of the school a chance to deal with the issue privately.
He later offered to debate Burlingame on a conservative Cheyenne talk radio show, which she accepted. However, it came on the condition that afternoon host Doug Randall, not morning show host Glenn Woods, would moderate. That arrangement never coalesced, and on Tuesday morning Clem appeared alone on Woods’ show.
Highlighting media coverage of an alleged culture of racist and homophobic behavior at McCormick, Clem said that Wyoming Equality had made members of a Gay-Straight Alliance they sponsored into the “poster child” of their advocacy. The two-term representative went on to point to a recent incident where Rep. Lynn Hutchings, R-Cheyenne, allegedly compared LGBTQ relationships to bestiality and pedophilia to members of the Gay-Straight Alliance at a Cheyenne high school during the legislative session, leading to national press coverage.
“I think everybody agrees that the flyers that were put up were awful and disturbing, and the school district should take appropriate disciplinary action, which they’re working on and I’m confident they will do,” Clem told Woods. “But the main issue here is I am — quite frankly — I have watched Wyoming Equality do a particular tactic over and over again, and I find it disturbing. And that is, they are exploiting our children in the media.”
Why did Wyoming Equality go public?
Clem went on to argue that the issue should have been handled with greater discretion. He said Wyoming Equality should have given the school the opportunity to deal with the transgressions privately and that, by speaking out, they’ve made the students subject for scrutiny.
“This is something Wyoming Equality likes to do,” Clem said in an interview Tuesday. “That’s my biggest issue. They’ve done this in several incidents. This isn’t something new. I’m not necessarily against what they do — if they want to advocate and help youths or adults, more power to them. My issue is don’t do it in the media. I think the media has a responsibility to protect our kids too.”
Burlingame, however, said her group had repeatedly made efforts to engage the principal over the years with no progress, and that speaking out had become one of the only mechanisms they had left to affect change.
“These are students we know and that we love,” she said. “These are students whose humanity and well-being is very important to us. They are not a political talking point to us; they are not a notch on a scorecard of rights or any of the things we’ve been accused of. These are students, who were feeling a lot of pain. And their stories, as they came forward, were so much more horrifying than the presence of the flyers had led us to believe.”
She said that discussing the issue, so far, has led to revelations of a racist and homophobic culture at the school where teachers who wanted to address it were not supported in doing so. Others were “complicit” in a culture that offered no support to black and LGBTQ students, Burlingame said, even when those students were targeted.
“Children are being attacked, and when someone advocates for them, they are fired; they are accused of exploiting children,” Burlingame said. “It leaves you with the feeling that the only thing that would be acceptable is to allow it to continue happening, and that the people who do stick up for these children are going to be publicly denigrated ourselves.”
Use of the media
In a Facebook comment, Clem challenged Burlingame to “publicly commit that starting now your organization won’t run to the media for any initial incident publication when issues arise involving minor children.”
There’s no evidence Wyoming Equality — in the two incidents Clem cited — ever purposefully pursued media attention prior to attempts at mediation. The first allegations regarding Hutchings, for example, were reported by Cheyenne television station KTWO-TV two days before Wyoming Equality publicized its informal complaint against her. Meanwhile, Burlingame said numerous efforts to engage the principal had been made prior to the incident gaining the attention of the press.
Asked about this in an interview Tuesday — as well as the potential effects going public could have had — Clem said that the issue of media attention should never have been a concern in the first place and contested that the group never followed the proper chain of command to pursue the changes they wanted with an appropriate level of discretion.
“They have a responsibility for the privacy and protection of kids, not to foment some kind of situation in the media, for all kids,” Clem said. “You’re trying to justify them, but there’s no justification for this. There really isn’t.”
Burlingame, however, has a different perspective.
“When have we ever been able to leverage change and protect our children when the abuse of power is kept a secret behind closed doors?” she said. “Never.”